The Government has published a “plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations”.  Councils will be provided with £255 million to implement measures to address the matter.

The Government says:

“Due to the highly localised nature of the problem local knowledge will be crucial in solving pollution problems in these hotspots. The government will require councils to produce local air quality plans which reduce nitrogen dioxide levels in the fastest possible time.

“Local authorities will be able to bid for money from a new Clean Air Fund to support improvements which will reduce the need for restrictions on polluting vehicles. This could include changing road layouts, removing traffic lights and speed humps, or upgrading bus fleets.”

I hope it succeeds.

For years I have argued that there should be far fewer traffic lights. It would also help if where they are retained, consideration is given to turning them off at night.

With regard to humps, the evidence of their failure is also long-standing. Many studies have indicated the substantial extra pollution they cause – which common sense already makes pretty obvious. Imperial College found that a petrol drive car produced 64 per cent more Nitrogen Dioxide in a street with humps. Last year the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence called for councils to remove humps to encourage “smooth driving” and thus cleaner air.

The principle of allowing local authorities flexibility in how they improve air quality is attractive and in line with localist principles. They need to solve the problem, but some innovation is allowed as to how they do so. The “nudge” also includes the £255 million.

My concern is that it won’t be enough. Highways engineers are addicted to interventionism. Asking them to renounce traffic lights and humps is to repudiate their entire careers. Those who have spent decades coming up with schemes for ever greater meddling will not find it easy to accept their work did more harm than good. Council leaders are too polite to say anything.

Michael Gove should have learnt his lesson when at the Department of Education where he tried to persuade social workers to discard their deeply help ideological opposition to adoption. I doubt he will do any better with the transport planners.

Money is not the problem. The London Assembly Conservatives proposal to turn off 80 per cent of traffic lights between midnight and 6am would save £40 million. Similarly, if humps are not replaced during routine road resurfacing that saves money. So I don’t quite see how councils will be entitled to the £255 million if the measures they were taking cost less. The incentives are already there but being ignored.

Some might conclude that this shows the ineffectiveness of localism. However a better solution is to apply the policy in a more radical form. Often councils think localism means giving them more power. Sometimes it does. But at other times it means devolution to the people and local institutions. Allowing schools to run their own affairs rather than being beholden to the town hall is localism. So is the right to buy your council home rather than have the state as your landlord. Local neighbourhood plans have meant a shift from planning officers to the community in the type of new homes to be built. Council Tax referendums have given residents a powerful veto on extravagant spending.

So in this spirit let’s allow residents in a local area (say a ward or even a polling district) to be able to trigger a local referendum on removing traffic lights. Humps could be an even more local decision. When a street with humps is being resurfaced let the residents of the street decide if they want the humps replaced. Councils should be required to inform them of the air quality data and the concerns of the emergency services. I would be surprised if given the choice, many humps would remain.

In some ways this approach would be controversial and naturally there is concern about votes in the House of Commons being tight. But would Labour and Lib Dem MPs really wish to oppose greater local democracy? I was pleased to see that Sir Vince Cable,  the Lib Dem’s bright fresh new leader, backs turning off traffic lights. Would Lib Dem MPs?

Let the people decide.